002 – What is IDEMS?

The IDEMS Podcast
The IDEMS Podcast
002 – What is IDEMS?


In this episode, we break down and discuss the acronym “IDEMS”, which stands for “Innovations in Development, Education and the Mathematical Sciences”. Santiago Borio interviews David Stern, a co-founder of IDEMS, to delve deeper into the organisation’s overarching objectives, some of the motivations for its establishment, and its positive but challenging future outlook.

[00:00:00] Santiago: Hi and welcome to the IDEMS Podcast. I am Santiago Borio, an Impact Activation Fellow. I’m here with David Stern, the Founding Director of IDEMS.

Hi, David. 

[00:00:17] David: Hi, Santiago. We’re here at the second IDEMS Podcast, my first with you. 

[00:00:21] Santiago: That’s quite exciting.

[00:00:22] David: What are we going to discuss? 

[00:00:24] Santiago: Well, in the first podcast you discussed the ideas behind IDEMS, the sort of human side.

I want to hone in on “IDEMS”. That’s a strange word. What does “IDEMS” actually mean? 

[00:00:37] David: What’s really interesting; it’s an acronym. It stands for Innovations in Development, Education and the Mathematical Sciences. But it’s been chosen as something which is more than just an acronym. Actually IDEMS could be many other acronyms in the future.

That’s, that was a deliberate thought, a deliberate pathway. And it actually, it works as a, a word. Idem actually, has some mathematical meaning, idempotent, there’s a mathematical term behind this. And so, it was something where there was meaning, and hopefully, the word itself, it could take on a meaning of its own beyond itself as an acronym.

[00:01:16] Santiago: Okay. So many questions come to mind. I’m not sure I want to go into the mathematical side of things.

[00:01:22] David: Absolutely. I think that’s a second podcast. Maybe later on we can become a little bit more mathematical about these. But… 

[00:01:30] Santiago: The acronym itself, Innovations in Development, Education and the Mathematical Sciences. And, there’s several aspects in there. As Lily said in the last episode, every single word is important for you and every single word has a meaning. 

Innovations. First word, in IDEMS, 

[00:01:50] David: And it’s somehow different to the other words, I think its important… and it comes from the fact that we live in a time where I don’t think business as usual is working.

It’s not, we discussed a little bit, the crises the world is facing. We feel there’s a need for innovation. There was an opportunity for innovation right now and to think about and to do things differently. And more than that… 

I never wanted to set up, a business, I never wanted to become an entrepreneur. I wanted to be an academic. I felt I was forced out of academia into the space of entrepreneurship because innovation was needed. And, and that’s sort of central to what we’re doing. I was… 

[00:02:35] Santiago: Hang on a second, hang on a second. Research and development and all, you know, the reason or one of the reasons why universities exist and academia exists is for innovations to happen.

[00:02:49] David: No, that’s one of the reasons universities existed. There’s a past tense here which is important and which is difficult. Universities are not serving the innovation role that I think they should. They are not the space for innovation in society which is needed. They’re too silent. You, you are in your academic discipline before you are an innovator. Most good innovation comes from being transdisciplinary, cutting across disciplines. Whereas within academia, you are in your discipline first and foremost, which restricts and constrains innovation. So currently, academia is not the right space for innovation to happen. And I’m speaking not only from my personal experience; but from discussing widely within academic circles with other academics who feel so constrained by the current academic systems.

[00:03:49] Santiago: Okay, and you feel that innovation is needed in society?

[00:03:55] David: Innovation is needed in so many different areas and different places. And arguably in society at the moment, the place where people feel innovation happens is the start up culture. It’s in, it’s in entrepreneurship. That is what people associate with innovation.

Entrepreneurship and innovation in certain circles are almost seen as synonyms. Now, they’re, in my mind, they’re very different. But I’m, I’m embracing entrepreneurship as a way to innovate. And that’s very much what is in our society at the moment. 

[00:04:31] Santiago: Okay. And you left academia because you wanted to innovate.

[00:04:38] David: Yes. 

[00:04:38] Santiago: And… 

[00:04:39] David: No, because I needed to innovate. 

[00:04:41] Santiago: Because you needed to innovate.

[00:04:42] David: I felt innovation was needed. I wanted to stay in academia. 

[00:04:48] Santiago: Okay… And, you, you speak about that in your, in the first annual report for IDEMS. 

[00:04:55] David: I’m a reluctant entrepreneur, but I’ve embraced it. 

[00:04:59] Santiago: Okay, and you chose, from my reading of the IDEMS acronym, you chose three areas to innovate in: development, education, and the mathematical sciences. And that number, three, is quite… it appears all over IDEMS, and we’ll get back to the three, and that’s partly what the logo symbolizes. 

[00:05:23] David: Yeah. 

[00:05:24] Santiago: But there’s three areas where you chose, or you felt that you had, to innovate. 

[00:05:32] David: Yes. 

[00:05:32] Santiago: And they’re very much interconnected.

[00:05:34] David: Absolutely. 

[00:05:35] Santiago: And I’d like to explore each one individually first, and then the interconnectedness. 

[00:05:40] David: Absolutely. Well, you mentioned the logo, that’s probably a whole other podcast about the power of three and the trefoil knot, which is in the logo. But you’re right, that interconnectedness is central, but each one is important in its own right.

[00:05:57] Santiago: So let’s start with development.

[00:05:59] David: This is coming from a perspective of international development. When we describe the community we serve, we talk about poverty. We talk about relative and absolute poverty, serving people who are in, in need. What is of course important is that this is not, although in our experience, we were really starting from the idea of international development, from day one, we were recognizing that all countries, however developed they are, are needing to change. This is what the sustainable development goals are pointing towards. Development transformation, societal transformation is needed everywhere. And that’s what we’re talking about in development.

And a lot of that is actually serving people who are in poverty and in need. 

[00:06:52] Santiago: And you mentioned that’s the community that we serve, and that’s something we’ll get into in detail in a future episode. But it’s very important to start to mention, I think, that that comes from the fact that IDEMS is a social enterprise.

[00:07:08] David: Exactly, our nature is a social enterprise, but more than that, the way we’re thinking about innovation, it’s not innovation for innovation’s sake, it’s innovation to serve something. And so, for development, this is seen as a sustainable development goals, this is seen as serving in particular within that, poverty, relative and absolute. And that distinction is important. 

[00:07:32] Santiago: And that doesn’t restrict us to work in the so called developing world.

[00:07:36] David: No, this is not a restriction. This is, and more than that, you have poverty, which is increasing everywhere in the world. In the UK, where we’re sitting at the moment, there are increasing issues around poverty. And so that is really important that we’re serving those who are in need. That’s the relative rather than just absolute. 

[00:07:56] Santiago: So um, Education. 

[00:08:00] David: This is a… It’s both a tool and an end in its own right. Education is one way to serve. It is a, a service that we’re able to provide and it’s a service which I believe is needed.

When I was finally brave enough to start working in international development again, it was through education as something which I believe: if we can improve education, then the skills that people will gain will enable them to, to, to solve their own problems. And so the need for education as a way to develop a society is one that I believe in.

But education is important in its own right. And so it isn’t just education in the context of poverty. We could be doing education for the wealthiest children in the world, and that would still be worthwhile because education is important in its own right.

[00:08:55] Santiago: Or even education at a professional level. We do training for corporations.

[00:09:03] David: But Education, I take in the broadest sense, this isn’t just formal education, this is informal education as well. This can be education which is pre primary, you know. It can be education up to PhD. It can be education which is in service training for teachers or for professionals. It can be… you know, lifelong learning is something I believe in.

It can be totally informal, even when you’re at school. The idea of having education within a formalized context and extracurricular activities. All of these are important and fall within our remit of education that we believe is important. 

[00:09:40] Santiago: And our remit as well, all our innovations in education are both direct training and education on courses and in support of others working in education. 

[00:09:56] David: Yes, but I think the key point there, and this is again tying it into the innovation, we need to really get back to our… Well, we need to get to our principles to understand the nature of our innovations. So actually our innovations are both very broad, they’re very holistic, but they’re also highly constrained by our principles, by how we’re trying to innovate.

There were certain things that we do, certain things that we don’t do, which are decided based on how they fit into a bigger picture of education and the education you want to see. And so that’s, that’s sort of, there’s a lot of complexity in what we do and education is at the heart of a lot of that complexity because formal education systems are extremely successful in many, many different ways, but they’re also extremely problematic in many different ways.

And there’s problems which come in different countries, problems are different, but a lot of the, a lot of the similarities exist across context. And so that complexity of different forms of education, different contexts, not looking for silver bullets, but actually looking for holistic ways of shifting education in ways which are going to serve society better in the future. That’s at the heart of what we try and do in education.

[00:11:16] Santiago: And you mentioned complexities, and I think that’s, where mathematical sciences come in quite nicely. 

[00:11:23] David: Well, mathematical sciences is both about, as we’ve discussed before, about being, having the tools to deal with complexity, but also understanding how to reduce complexity down to something which you can manage and you can deal with and actually say something about.

If you live purely in complexity, then, you often find it’s difficult to take a position, whereas actually being able to reduce the complexity down to something which is complex, but solvable in a mathematical sense, that sort of becomes a part of this and the mathematical sciences are a powerful tool for this.

[00:12:01] Santiago: And you explain what… what we mean by mathematical sciences in the previous podcast, but I think it’s worth mentioning very briefly again what mathematical sciences are. 

[00:12:12] David: Absolutely, and this is something where, as a term, it’s very natural for me, but even within mathematics, statistics, other areas, not everyone is familiar with this idea of the mathematical sciences.

It’s a well established term which captures broadly everything you can do with just your brain and a computer. So that includes pure maths, applied maths, that includes statistics, data science, computer science, theoretical physics. Not experimental physics. Experimental physics, you’d need a lab. Biology, you’d need a lab. Chemistry, you’d need a lab. Those are other sciences that would not fit into the purely mathematical sciences. But if you abstract them out to something where you only need your brain and a computer, that would then be captured by the mathematical sciences. So mathematical biology is an instance of the mathematical sciences.

[00:13:07] Santiago: Okay, we’ve been talking about innovations. It’s a very important word. How do we innovate in the mathematical sciences? 

[00:13:17] David: Well, it’s more than just… there’s two different areas of this. I think, sort of just as thinking about the community was useful for development, thinking about our community for the mathematical sciences is really important. That actually we are thinking about people who are mathematical scientists and supporting and enabling them, but we’re also thinking about people who use the mathematical sciences; and this is really important about the innovation. 

Many lay people may assume that, for example, if you talk about pure maths and applied maths, when you talk about applied maths, you are talking about mathematics which has applications. But no. Applications of mathematics is very different from applied maths. You actually have as many applications of pure maths nowadays as you do of applied maths. There is a historical difference between the mathematics which are classified as being pure or applied, but studying mathematics into either of those has nothing really to do with the applications.

Applications of mathematics is a whole different area and often not respected academically. So understanding how applications of mathematics serve different areas, different communities, is often undervalued in academia. And this is part of what is central to our innovations. It’s about actually saying that, you know, we don’t necessarily need new maths. The most advanced maths most people are aware of is very old. There has been more maths discovered or invented, depending on which side of that fence you live, in the last 50 years than ever before, maybe in the last 10 years than ever before. Actually, the rate at which we are advancing in mathematics is extremely fast.

It’s really exciting. It’s great. But we’re not seeing many of those applications come to fruition anytime soon. We’re not even exploiting the applications of mathematics which are 100 years old yet. We really need more people to be able to sort of use the mathematics which already exists. I see mathematics as a language, an incredibly powerful language which you can use to understand the world.

And we need many more people to be using that language more effectively in many other disciplines, and not just other disciplines, in other areas, so that we can be more effectively communicating about how the world works and our understanding of how the world works.

[00:15:45] Santiago: That’s a lot to take in but very interesting indeed. 

I, I heard you speak about an example of this with regards to statistics and I think, you know, you have a very passionate argument. What does it mean practically? And I think that the argument that you gave me before on statistics and 

[00:16:08] David: How it’s taught in schools in the UK, for example, is that a sensible one or maybe, 

[00:16:14] Santiago: no, no, no. Your father’s relationship with mathematicians. 

[00:16:18] David: Oh, okay, yes. So my father’s a statistician, and he was… going back to the 1960s, 1970s, when, when he was sort of in this avant, avant garde, I would say, of statisticians who were on the really applied side. He was part of the group at Reading University that became world renowned, renowned, because as statistics they moved out of mathematics and into agriculture! And they were serving agriculture! And they were applied statisticians and they fought these battles for applied statistics to be recognized because of the value it brought to agriculture and they trained people across the world in this.

And he has been extremely successful in many ways throughout his career and a total failure because actually statistics at Reading has gone back into mathematics. There are other places which are taking this on. Applied statistics is more renowned, generally it’s more well accepted. But this aspect of actually taking his skills and using them is for the benefit of other disciplines… There’s a lot of complexity which comes into that, and in, in general, in terms of his academic progression, without a doubt, it was held back because the systems in play were more interested, were valuing more the mathematical approaches which were advancing the discipline of statistics, rather than the applications of it.

And, this has been sort of a constant debate, but I would argue that data science only exists because people like my father failed at actually getting applied statistics to be the leading force in statistics. That’s a whole another discussion, a whole other podcast.

[00:18:07] Santiago: I was going to say, maybe even a podcast series.

[00:18:11] David: Maybe even a podcast series. 

[00:18:13] Santiago: But let’s get back into IDEMS. We mentioned interconnectedness and we discussed innovations in each one of the three areas: development, education, mathematical sciences. Arguably some of them are not easy to relate with each other. 

[00:18:32] David: Oh they are. 

[00:18:32] Santiago: Development and education, possibly easy. Mathematical sciences and education again. So I want to challenge you on the, the least obvious one first: the relationship between development and mathematical sciences. 

[00:18:47] David: It’s obvious that basically at the moment in international development, in social impact, the areas where you work in, towards development of society, mathematical sciences are underrepresented.

This is exactly what the first podcast was about. Getting those minds involved in those communities, part of those communities. Historically, there’s good reasons why they were, not excluded, but they weren’t being included enough as part of those debates, as part of that, bringing their voices into that. That’s an obvious one. 

So any pairwise, what you’re doing here is looking at the pairwise connections. Of course, it’s really easy to look at all three together. You just need to look at this, but broadly speaking, applying the mathematical sciences, thinking about solutions. Now, remember, the mathematical sciences includes computer sciences. Developing software for the margins of society, rather than for the mainstream society, that would be interesting.

[00:19:47] Santiago: And understanding how the software that is being developed doesn’t always fit the needs of 

[00:19:53] David: Exactly 

[00:19:53] Santiago: certain communities. 

[00:19:54] David: This is obviously going to be a whole other podcast series on that because that’s central to a lot of what we do, but this is… actually thinking about how do we build a technology that serves the margins, that serves those who are, who need support to develop?

[00:20:09] Santiago: And potentially how looking at the problems in those margins and developing solutions for those margins, can lead to better solutions. 

[00:20:20] David: Absolutely. And this is something I believe, I believe more fundamentally. So let’s actually look at the more interesting intersection, which is the intersection of all three. 

[00:20:28] Santiago: Okay. 

[00:20:30] David: Mathematics, education, for people in low resource, difficult environments. That is central to… something I am passionate about.

Actually understanding this, is how I believe we can actually have a really big impact on the world. Because if we enable people in really low resource environments to have the skill to build the technologies and to use the data they have in their environments to find their solutions, I believe their solutions are more scalable than solutions we find in other environments. So actually combining those three is, is potentially a real sweet spot. It’s a place I love to work. You don’t get that much opportunity to do so, not as much as I would like. But that’s, that’s the real sweet spot, I think, because that’s where I see real opportunity.

The youth of the future is African. This is the continent with the highest population growth rates at the moment. 

[00:21:29] Santiago: Not just the youth, the workforce.

[00:21:31] David: Well, the workforce of the future is the youth of tomorrow. So, yeah, so that’s not a different set. So the workforce of today is more evenly distributed in different ways. It’s not the biggest workforce. But in the future, they’re going to be the workforce of the future. Because that’s where the youth of the future are. If they had strong mathematical science skills, they’re going to be well prepared for the digital jobs of the future. Because the jobs of the future are going to be digital.

So, that’s an exciting prospect. And that is a real opportunity. And it’s a real… interesting… that’s the centre of our areas. Innovations, thinking about innovations, not only our innovations, but their innovations, enabling innovation, enabling them to innovate.

[00:22:17] Santiago: And learning from their innovations 

[00:22:19] David: And having the structures in place to support those innovations to impact, not just them in their context, but to have more scalable, more global impact. Those are the, that’s the dream. 

[00:22:29] Santiago: And that’s where the Innovations in Development, Education, and the Mathematical Sciences converge into IDEMS. 

[00:22:36] David: Into IDEMS. 

But it’s, IDEMS isn’t just that sweet spot, it’s individual components. We believe the work needs to be done on each of these individually, on the pairwise components, you drew out first, and our sweet spot in the middle, that, that’s where I love to work. 

[00:22:57] Santiago: Right. Well, very interesting indeed. I think we are getting towards an understanding of what IDEMS is, and I look forward to discussing a bit more the rest of the name.

[00:23:13] David: Absolutely. Well, the rest of the company’s name. Because I think what’s really important is, remember, this is the IDEMS podcast. And the IDEMS podcast isn’t just about IDEMS, the institution, the organization, the company. We’ll discuss about the fact it’s actually, the proper name is IDEMS International Community Interest Company.

That’s a whole other podcast. But the IDEMS podcast is, I believe, much more about what we’ve just discussed today and the stories related to that. Be they IDEMS organizational stories or others. This is, those are the stories that I want to tell. And that’s what I hope the podcast will be about. 

[00:23:54] Santiago: Right, looking forward to it.

[00:23:56] David: Thank you.